President Barack Obama inaugurated his second term last year with a vow. He promised to "respond to the threat of climate change" — a pledge platitudinous and vague enough to essentially mean nothing. After all, a response to the threat of climate change could entail making it worse.
At the time, however, the environmentalist commentariat had a very precise project in mind that would serve, as the Guardian put it at the time, as "a litmus test of the administration's environmental credentials." Obama could choose to green light or reject the Keystone XL project, a pipeline that would carry crude oil to the Gulf Coast from Alberta's tar sands, disrupting communities and native lands en route, all the while further lining the pockets of the Koch brothers. Midway through Obama's second term, the KXL project remains stalled, and the president has neither vetoed nor rubber stamped it. And now, with the Midterms handing the Senate to the GOP, he might never have to.
One of the upshots of Tuesday's GOP victory is that there are now possibly enough Republican bodies in the Senate to vote through veto-proof approval for KXL. The Republicans have already announced they want to make a Keystone vote an agenda priority. No surprise there — who wouldn't want a victory lap? Even if the Republicans don't get the 67 Senate votes needed to override the president's veto, renewed congressional leverage and public opinion in favor of the KXL project might force Obama's hand. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus has said that he believes that a veto-proof vote isn't necessary; if the Senate puts an approval bill on the president's desk as an early order of business, Priebus said, "I actually think [he] will sign it."
But, and this is crucial, we shouldn't fall for any party politics myths here, which might frame Obama as an environmentalist forced to capitulate by nasty big oil and its congressional allies. While holding up the TransCanada project, the Obama administration has also, without Republican intervention, laid the groundwork to approve the vast pipeline while (barely) saving face on climate change promises. The president said at the beginning of this year that he would approve the KXL if and "only if it will not lead to a net increase in overall greenhouse gas emissions." Low and behold, the State Department survey around that time concluded that the project would not significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions.
But, and herein lies the rub, the president didn't make clear an emissions baseline. And the State Department's conclusion was based on the assumption that even without the pipeline, the oil will be transported through other means anyway, which also will produce greenhouse gas emissions. It was not once considered or proposed by the White House that rejecting KXL would come with concomitant plans to reduce reliance on tar sands oil. As it turns out, the KXL was never a great litmus test for the White House's environmental credentials; the State Department's findings make evident that even without the pipeline, the administration is expecting — even relying on — equally high levels of greenhouse gas emissions.
The vagaries of state legislation mean that the Keystone XL pipeline is stalled for the next few months anyway. The White House is waiting on the decision, expected later this or early next year, of the Nebraska Supreme Court over a challenge to the pipeline's route and the governor's ability to approve it. It is a political dance toward the pipeline's inevitable approval and completion.
"President Obama can't approve the most massive oil infrastructure project in modern history, while claiming to be a climate champion," May Boeve, executive director of the group 350.org, said in a statement Tuesday night. Boeve's rhetorical aim was clear, but her statement was provably false. The president can claim to be whatever he so chooses while also approving environmentally ruinous projects. Our willingness to put stock in such presidential claims is what should crumble with the pipeline's construction.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard